Gourmet used to run a recipe-request column called You Asked For It. It was everybody’s favorite part of the magazine. Everybody, that is, except Gourmet’s test-kitchen cooks, who drove themselves crazy getting the recipes into a form that people at home could follow.
In Gourmet’s early years, the 1940s and ’50s, what readers asked for was usually a good recipe for a dish that could be found all over the place, like egg rolls or coq au vin. Mrs. Arthur M. Cottrell Jr., for instance, wrote in from Westerly, R.I., in 1951 to say, “I recently ate Caesar salad for the first time and must admit it has a very definite flair all its own.” Gourmet gave Mrs. Cottrell a recipe that must have been very punchy for 1951, and would still have a flair of its own if you made it today, although I would throw garlic right into the salad instead of just rubbing the bowl with it.
As time went by, more and more readers asked for recipes from a specific restaurant. Often their letters went into detail about when and where they’d eaten it. They didn’t just want a great blueberry muffin recipe. They wanted the blueberry muffins they ate for breakfast on the porch of a charming old Maine inn while they were on vacation last July.
The column went from helping people make dinner to helping them recapture some of the happiness they’d felt once when they went out to eat. I suspect this change is the reason You Asked For It won the hearts of so many readers. Even if you hate blueberry muffins, you know what it’s like to love a restaurant meal so much that you want to relive it later on.
And if you didn’t know that feeling before, you know it now. In New York, like many other big cities around the country, the only place to have a restaurant meal since March has been in your own head. I have a small file of memories that I play when I can’t stand the sight of my own kitchen:
Waiting and waiting for my order of jerk chicken to come up at Exquisite Express in Brooklyn, wondering why there are always so many people waiting when there seem to be several hundred blackened chicken legs sitting on the grill already. And then, when I get called up and asked how I want my chicken, getting it with a long hose-down from the hot sauce bottle and a healthy squirt of barbecue sauce, and then, why not, a final graffiti scrawl of tamarind sauce.
Taking the last empty seat at the bar of I Sodi on a West Village weeknight, holding a Negroni that flashes red like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, eavesdropping, reading the menu but knowing the whole time that it’s going to be lasagna. Or rabbit. Or lasagna and rabbit.
Studying the blistered triangles and rectangles and coils and knots of deep-fried pig parts spread out below greasy bare light bulbs in the steamy front window of 188 Cuchifritos in the Bronx, then rolling inside, sidestepping the Lotto line, ordering one of everything and watching as one of the women behind the counter drops the oranges for my morir soñando into the ancient juicer.
But I can’t do any of those things now. Some restaurants, though I hope not any of these, have already said they won’t be able to come back. Many more are gone and we, or they, just don’t know it yet. The ones that are able to return won’t look, feel or act the same for a long time.
I have a bowl full of matchbooks by my bed that I’ve picked up in restaurants. Looking at them doesn’t make me feel anything except an urge to smoke. The only things I know that can make restaurants come alive when I’m outside their walls are recipes. Even when I don’t cook them, they still do that.
But I’ve had lots and lots of time lately for cooking meals that put me in touch with some place I used to go. Tonight, I’ll make Jim Lahey’s no-knead pizza dough so that tomorrow night, with my broiler running as hot as it will go, I can make pizza in the style of Co., which has been closed for two years.
When You Asked For It was still being published, people generally wanted recipes for dishes they could get at some restaurant that existed. Maybe it was on the other side of town or halfway across the world, but it was there, and the reader who loved that dish so much could still go there and eat it. A recipe in the column was a postcard from another place, one that you might go back to one day.
Any restaurant recipe now is a postcard from another time: The time before this, when you could just take a subway, a taxi, a ferry or a plane without thinking twice, and when you could arrive wherever you were going and walk down a street where the lights were on and the doors were open.
Inside, there probably wasn’t any room at the bar, but you could squeeze in, catch the bartender’s eye and, when your cocktail, so cold it almost hurt, landed in front of you, you could smile, and know that other people could see you doing it.
If You Asked For It were still around, just think how busy the editors would be.